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The face that fell

STAY THAT WAY If you pull faces! (Photo: Tadas Černiauskas).
STAY THAT WAY If you pull faces! (Photo: Tadas Černiauskas).

I’D been down with a terribly sore throat for days, and I woke late, feeling as though I’d slept very deeply. In my stupor, I noted that I was due to meet a friend at a local cafe in less than half an hour; showered lightning fast; jumped in the car; and as I looked in the rear vision mirror to reverse out the driveway, I noticed my face looked weird.

It felt perhaps that my face was still asleep, so I gave myself a gentle slap. 

At the bathroom mirror, the truth revealed itself subtly: the whole right hand side of my face was slumped, including my eyelid. I could feel the muscles trying to lift internally, but nothing was happening on the surface.

I called my friend and said I’d have to cancel, then went back to bed, thinking that by the time I woke up, all would be well.

But it wasn’t. 

I had woken up with a case of Bell’s Palsy.

George Clooney had it before he became the world’s sexiest man. Rosanne Barr’s had it too. Even Allen Ginsberg woke up with it one day.

Remember when you were young, and an older relative, perhaps a great aunt, warned that if you pulled faces, and the wind changed, you could get stuck like that?

Bell’s Palsy makes a shocking reality out of that old wives’ tale.

At the hospital, the first of many practitioners failed to look at my face. I was prescribed a course of steroids, and told things might get better after a few weeks.

I went to my GP and he looked up his notes on this condition, which has been afflicting people with varying states of permanency for millennia, yet he didn’t once look at my face.

I went to see an acupuncturist, who assured me that his modality has been getting faces moving forever, yet over two weeks of treatments, he failed to look at the problem. After I caught him giving me a strange glance when he thought I wasn’t looking, I didn’t go back.

A fallen face is an aberration, apparently.

At the grocery shop, the shop assistant slowed down her speech, obviously thinking I was stupid. 

At the takeaway shop, an old acquaintance either didn’t recognise me, or did but fled in shock.

A good friend looked pained by my sunken features, especially my difficulty with speaking, and just nodded, concerned yet remote.

Without my usual speed, or courage, of response, I stopped going out of the house.

And after a few weeks of that cold, nerve pain coursing through my head and shoulders, I wondered if this was going to be my new life from now on?

Worst of all, I’d only recently started a new relationship, and presenting with a permanent facial disfiguration was not an ideal prospect.

It wasn’t until a friend of a friend heard about my Bell’s Palsy that a solution reared it ‘ugly head’. She’d had Bell’s Palsy herself, and her advice was simple and a little shocking: “If you want your face back, change your life”.

VILLAGE IDIOT John Cleese giving his best impersonation of a Bell’s Palsy sufferer.

My great new job was only six months old. My dawning relationship even younger.

These were not circumstances I wanted to change, but a fortnight of being treated like the village idiot or a special needs case weighed heavily on me.

I decided the relationship was not up for negotiation. The job, however, was, so I resigned, and got myself to a naturopath.

Kay was the first practitioner to look me in the eye, name my condition out loud without fear, and tell me with surety she knew she could fix me. With higher than usual doses of omega 3 oil and vitamin B, she got to the essence of the cause of many Bell’s Palsy cases – strangulated nerves.

Our facial nerves emerge from the brain via a small hole in the skull near each ear, and if something, in my case a virus, causes swelling in the region, the nerves can get pinched, and will simply shut down.

Much of the condition’s nature remains a mystery, especially the reason some people recover fully, some partially, and some (the minority) never, but advice from someone who’d been there was all I had to go on. 

Luckily my new partner Richard opened his house to me when my income suddenly diminished. His open heart told me that he was just as interested in what lay under my surface. I took courage than work would come my way at the right time, and focused on eating well and resting.

My true friends seemed to relax with my new-found approach, and one afternoon, after spending time laughing with me on the back deck, Naumi noticed the slightest corner of my fallen mouth started to lift.

I ran to the mirror, and she was right. The next day, more progress, and the nerve pain began to subside.

Within another month, my face was back to normal on the surface, and by the end of the year, it felt as it used to below the surface.

I became a Bell’s Palsy survivor, but I have never acted since and I was careful to avoid being photographed. Vanity, tinged with residual shock, I suppose.

Sometimes when I am very tired, I feel a tingle of that nerve pain, a reminder that I must not overdo things, and rest.

Sometimes I have seen a fellow sufferer, bravely trying to communicate with less mouth mobility than they’re used to, at a checkout, or a bank, and I notice the other person simply refuse to look into the Bell’s sufferer’s face. I always try to make eye contact, to see the real person inside.

We’re a shockingly surface-oriented society, I suppose, but the line between ‘it’s all good’ and whatever the opposite is, is nerve-thin, and touchy.

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To be honest, part of me enjoyed frightening certain uber-cool shopkeepers and ‘friends’ with my motionless ‘bad’ side.

But my month as the village idiot was a challenge. Coming as it did two years after the sudden death of my partner, it served to separate the men from the boys as far as friends were concerned, and was perhaps the ultimate manifestation of a ‘new me’ emerging.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved. 

An extract from Merely Players.